Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Brief Review of "The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole"

It's almost not fair for me to write a review of this novel, since it won't go into wide release for nearly two more months.

With that in mind, I'm not going to do my typical thing, which is to try -- with varying degrees of success -- to dig into the meat of the book.  I can't do that without getting into spoilers, and I have no intention of doing that; 'twouldn't be fair to those who haven't the opportunity to read the book yet, sai; not fair at all.

So, instead, I'll just give some brief general impressions first, which will tell you whether or not I feel like you should be excited to read the book.  After that, I'll issue a warning that there be mild spoilers ahead, and I'll dive into a general discussion of the novel's interesting structure.

artwork by Jae Lee


First things first: if it bums you out that I've read the novel and you have to wait until April 24th, I've got a solution.  Head over to Grant's website and buy yoself a copy.  The artist edition is still available; sure, it's $75, but it's signed by artist Jae Lee.  PLUS, that way you don't have to wait until April, and the quality of the physical book itself is simply awesome.  If you can justify spending the money, you really ought to spend it ... just sayin'.

Speaking for myself, I don't feel as if I wasted a single penny of the money I spent on this novel.  It's cool that Jae Lee signed it, and it's cool that the design of the book is impressive ... but the bottom line is that I bought this edition because I didn't feel as if I could wait the two months between its release and the mass-market release.  Add to that the fact that Lee's art -- which is TERRIFIC, by the way -- will not be reproduced in the mass-market hardback, and it became a no-brainer for me.  It would have been a no-brainer even if I thought the novel might turn out to be mediocre, and while I never had that fear, it would have been a somewhat reasonable one.

After all, returning to the Mid-World well after a nearly ten-year absence might not have turned out to be a good thing, especially if it did anything to harm what some (though certainly not all) readers felt to be a note-perfect ending.  I'm one of those readers who felt the ending was perfect, and while the concept of The Wind Through the Keyhole promised a midquel (set between Books IV and V) rather than a sequel, I felt there was still room for apprehension.

I was never worried about it, though ... and as it turns out, my Alfred E. Neuman-ish impulses were dead on the money: The Wind Through the Keyhole not only does absolutely NOTHING to tarnish the legacy of a great series of novels, it actually strengthens it.

One thing I would say is that from the very first paragraph, it feels 100% as though this story fits -- tonally, stylistically, and plotwise -- with the rest of the series.  If King had returned to the series after an eight-year absence, and had not quite been able to make Roland and Eddie and Susannah and Jake sound the same as they had last sounded ... well, it would have been understandable, but also regrettable.  This does not happen; instead, it feels as if we are reading an eighth novel in the series which was written years ago and, for whatever reason, is only now seeing the light of day.  In other words, The Wind Through the Keyhole reads not like someone trying to write a Dark Tower novel ... but like someone writing a Dark Tower novel.

That might seem like a minor distinction.

It isn't.  

It's a major one, and it's really the only one that matters.  For anyone who considers themselves to be a Dark Tower fan, that's probably the only thing you need to hear in terms of a review.  So, there you have it: it's a Dark Tower novel, and it feels like one; therefore, if you are a Dark Tower fan, you would be a fool not to read it.

I promised no spoilers -- not even very minor ones -- without a warning, so consider yourself warned.  I won't discuss anything terribly specific about the plot, but I do want to touch on a few general matters involving structure, tone, etc., and to do so I need to at least say something about what's going on here storywise.  Some folks might consider even that much info to be spoilery, so I'd rather err on the side of caution and just issue the warning here.  So, if you're determined to know as little as possible, I'd advise you to turn back now.

As is my wont, I shall provide an amusing photo as a transitional device:


Heh.  That cracks me up, boy ... even more than this one does:


Yes, the Internet can be a morally bankrupt place sometimes ... but never let it be said that it don't know how to party.

Alright, still with me?

Good.

Here's the biggest spoiler about The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole: there really are no spoilers ... because in a way, nothing happens.  This is no surprise; as a midquel -- I hate that word, but it fits -- the story can have no genuine impact on the overall story of The Dark Tower.  We know where our characters were at the end of Wizard and Glass, and we know where they are at the beginning of Wolves of the Calla ... and it's more or less the same place.  (However, this review at FEARnet by Kevin Quigley has some extremely perceptive things to say about how The Wind Through the Keyhole provides a better transition for Jake from youth into young manhood and gunslingerhood ... gunslingerdom ... gunslingery ... whatever.)  

Any prospective Book IV-and-a-half can't do much in the way of altering the series' storyline, and it would have been a mistake for King to even try.  King knows this, and doesn't try. Instead, he crafts a tale that is very much a meditation on the art of storytelling itself, and uses that conceit to help illuminate certain aspects of Roland's personality.  As such, The Wind Through the Keyhole also serves to provide an even better transition from the Roland of the first three novels to the slightly more touchy-feely Roland of the final three novels.  That transition was already there in Wizard and Glass, but The Wind Through the Keyhole gives us a bit more time to live with that in-transition version of Roland.  This isn't mandatory ... but it seems appropriate, and I'll be curious to read the entire series front to back at some point, with this new novel slotted between Books IV and V to see how it feels in that context.

The one drawback I can see is that, read that way, the novel may decelerate the forward momentum of the series a bit.  Wizard and Glass already does puts the brakes on quite a bit, replacing forward momentum with pastwards-oriented revelation; it might seem even more of a distraction for The Wind Through the Keyhole to provide literally NO forward progress in the overall story.  However, it might also make Wolves of the Calla seem exciting in comparison, which could theoretically be an aid in some ways.

No matter.  That's a topic for another day.

This day, let's talk a bit about the structure of the novel.  First off: page count.  It's slightly more than 330 pages, so it's a fairly brief book.  Its closest relation within the Dark Tower series is Wizard and Glass, which is two stories: one the tale of Roland and crew journeying a bit further along their path to the Tower, and the other the tale of his tragic youth that Roland tells them along the way.

Here, we get three stories: one involves Roland and crew taking shelter from a vicious storm; one is a tale he tells them about a mission he and fellow gunslinger Jamie DeCurry were sent on as young gunslingers; and one is the tale of a young boy who goes on a magical quest to save his mother from an abusive stepfather (as Kevin Quigley points out in that review from FEARnet, this is essentially a Mid-World fairy tale).

You might be thinking, "hmm ... a collection of Mid-World short stories; interesting."  But it's more complicated than that.  As Roland himself describes it, these stories take the form of nesting dolls, one inside the other inside the other: while sheltering from the storm, Roland tells his ka-tet the skin-man story, and it is within that tale itself that a younger Roland tells a traumatized young boy the tale of Tim, a brave and persistent lad who goes on a quest.

These tales inform each other in somewhat unexpected ways.  The central tale, "The Wind Through the Keyhole," is perhaps the most significant one in some ways.  It is the length of a short novel, and on its own stands as what I might consider to be King's strongest-ever tale of pure fantasy.  It's got echoes of both The Talisman and The Eyes of the Dragon, but for my money, it's better than both of those put together: it strikes all the right notes of balance between a fantastical tone and King's own more realistic tone, and also introduces a great character in Tim Ross.  This is deeply good stuff, and it opens the possibility to Mid-World tales which do not necessarily involve Roland, gunslingers, or the Dark Tower itself.  (Side-note: it could also make for an exceptional movie, which need not involve the larger Dark Tower mythos in any way.  Just sayin'.  I nominate Guillermo del Toro for the job, and if he ain't willin', somebody get me Alfonso Cuaron, stat!)

Almost as important is "The Skin-Man," a two-part story (it has "The Wind Through the Keyhole" nestled between the two) about Roland and Jamie hunting a werewolf-like "skin-man" that has been terrorizing one of the lands near Gilead.  This takes place not terribly long after the incident (from Wizard and Glass) in which Roland mistakenly kills his mother, and the wounds of that event are very much the emotional backbone of the story.  There is a good amount of bloody horror in this tale, and -- as Kevin Quigley beat me to pointing out! -- there are fun echoes of Cycle of the Werewolf, Desperation, and even The Little Sisters of Eluria (a story that sometimes gets left out of discussions involving The Dark Tower series, but shouldn't).  The two parts taken as one are novella length, and it is a blast to read King writing another tale of young Roland the gunslinger.  He introduces several good characters, including a badass Amazon-esque nun named Everlynne whom I would desperately like to see show up again at some point; she's wonderful.

If "The Wind Through the Keyhole" (the story specifically, as opposed to the novel generally) opens up the possibility of an expanded Mid-World universe of storytelling, "The Skin-Man" reaffirms -- and, perhaps, encourages (if only ever-so-slightly) -- my hope that at some point in time, King will write the definitive version of what transpires in Gilead to lead to its fall.  Yes, yes, I know: the comic books have answered those questions.

Except ... they haven't.  Not satisfactorily, at least (as far as this reader is concerned) ... and if I'm not mistaken, this novel blatantly contradicts -- and, therefore, renders, irrelevant -- at least one event from those comics. I can't be sure of that without a careful rereading of both the novel and of the comics, so this, too, must be a topic for another day.  Regardless, "The Skin-Man" does prove that King still has room to tell any number of stories involving young Roland Deschain and his exploits as a gunslinger, both in Gilead itself and (potentially) wandering away from its ruin.  Will we ever get to read such tales?  Well ... here's hoping.  Boy, here's REALLY hoping...

That leaves us with the wraparound story: Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy taking shelter from a devastatingly violent wintry storm called a "starkblast."  (King, who apparently discovered George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series recently, may be tipping his hat to the Stark family of those novels here; winter is coming, indeed ... and it's coming really fast, so get inside and lock them doors.)  In some ways, this is the least interesting of the stories, simply because we know what happens: i.e., everyone survives, and they proceed toward Calla Bryn Sturgis.  Duh.

In another way, though, this is the most satisfying of the tales, for the simple reason that it returns our ka-tet to the state in which many Tower fans enjoyed them the most: all together, on the road, with a far-flung destination in mind and no idea of how long it might take to get there.  It's nice to have Jake and Eddie and Oy alive again; it's nice for Susannah to get flustered and for Detta Walker to pop out of her and start cussin' up a storm.  For anyone who has read the series, those characters are vital; they are important, and it's nice to see them again.  They sound just the same as they always sounded, and if this is the last peek at them we ever get, well, it's a satisfying one, which leaves them as we loved them best.

That idea is reinforced by the "nesting-doll" stories within it, which have their own complementary notions about the restorative and transformational power of storytelling.  As (again) Quigley points out in his review, this is a theme that becomes very pronounced starting with Wolves of the Calla, so, in that sense, The Wind Through the Keyhole serves a very useful function for the overall series.

There is plenty more to discuss with this fine novel, but for now, I think I've said enough.

I'll come back to it when the mass-market edition hits in late April, and get a bit more in-depth.  Until then, just remember: if you go to Taco Bell and ask for a gunslinger burrito, they won't know what the hell you're talking about.

33 comments:

  1. Hi
    Did I get the link right? I am not great at this technology stuff!!
    Thanks
    Rachel

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  2. Indeed you did.

    So, here's a question for you: did you feel as if King had effectively recaptured his "Dark Tower" writing style in this new book?

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    1. How are we handling spoilers in this conversation?

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    2. Well, my theory on that is that we can just spoil away and not have to feel too bad about it. I would hope that anyone who would be ticked off to read spoilers would see these comments and say "whoops, lemme duck outta here for a while."

      So if you're reading this and don't to be spoiled, don't keep reading!

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  3. I now really want to go to taco bell and order a gunslinger burrito....
    Thanks for that.

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    1. Recipe to follow....seriously....8)

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    2. I went to Taco Bell tonight and tried to order some of those Doritos tacos I've been hearing about. But their computers were down so it didn't happen. :(

      Bring on the recipe for a gunslinger burrito, by the way. I assume it's better than lembas bread...

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  4. Having trouble posting from my phone!
    1. No elven bread for me
    2. For the burritos, thinking pulled pork tenderloin, grains, herbs and roasted nuts wrapped in kale.......will be working on it in the test kitchen...
    3. Upon re reading, I now agree with you mostly. The first parts of starkblast and skin man still seem a bit....off, but by halfway through wind through the keyhole I got caught.....and I loved it.....

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    1. You've re-read it already, eh?

      I immediately loaned my copy to a friend who I got hooked on the series years ago. I'd've felt guilt to make him wait!

      I'm going to re-read it when the mass-market edition comes out, though. And then listen to the audiobook. I'm already looking forward to writing some more in-depth posts, and I'm starting to think that I might try to focus one on the style of the prose itself. I've never written anything like that before (or at least not since college), and it could be fun.

      So I think I'll be paying closer attention to that element the second go-round.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed it a second time!

      And by all means, pass along that recipe for gunslinger burritos once you've got it finalized. I betcha you could even write that up as a guest article for Talk Stephen King...

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  5. Yes, I know.....re reading already, but I was seriously thrown off enough by what I felt was an inconsistency in the voice at first that I was compelled to search the internet about it, and find your review. For me, this is strange!!!! Reading Stephen King and the internet had never really been that connected for me, and I am not consistently wired, so it is great to find so many great conversations. I found the chronological read fun, as well as the time I read them (chronologically, still) in groups of dark tower related and unrelated (according to the list in 7). my own list of those related to the dark tower was a bit different of course.....

    Anyway....
    Feeling like I am seeming a bit batty, I will blame it on composing this on my phone...

    As for last on the list...
    The Tommyknockers. that one is just personal. I just simply do not like that book...my list is just my favorites, not a literary analysis. For this reason I excluded Feast of fear, and bare bones, as well as any collection of short stories that had previously come out based on movie promotions.....I also left out The Plant, because it is unfinished....and Faithful, because I did not read it. Say sorry...

    I will work on a recipe! This weekend, however, I am making am irish feast....so, lots of cooking with Guinness....

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    1. I don't think there's any need to worry about seeming batty around here, because you're talking to a guy who spent hours compiling a list of all of Stephen King's books and then ranking all nearly-seventy of them in order from worst to best. If that's not batty, I don't know what is. So don't worry about it. This IS bat country, and you CAN stop here.

      As for "The Tommyknockers," I used to not like that one very much, but when I reread it last year, I kinda loved it. I really enjoyed writing the posts I wrote about it, too; I felt like I was clicking pretty well when I wrote those.

      Going back to your comment about reading King and the internet not going together ... well, I'll say this: the internet has made it impossible for me to feel like there is ANYTHING that everyone agrees on. I mean, that's always been the case, and in the back of my mind somewhere I've always known it, but visiting the 'net makes it official in a way that I tend to not enjoy very much.

      Example: I can walk out of seeing a movie that's literally made me feel on mental/emotional fire in terms of how much I've enjoyed it, then get on the internet and read any number of comments which are saying the exact opposite thing.

      Case in point: I adored the movie "War Horse." Saw it a second time and liked it even more. But then I got into a discussion -- it wasn't even a disagreement, just a discussion -- with a self-professed "major Steven Spielberg fan" who told me he had no interest in seeing "War Horse." Now, I can understand not wanting to see the movie; and I can understand not being a Spielberg fan. I can understand being a Spielberg fan and not liking the movie; I can understand liking the movie and not being a Spielberg fan.

      I cannot under any circumstances understand being a Spielberg fan and having no interest in seeing one of his movies. Now, it's be one thing if he directed a documentary about water polo. But a WWI movie in which Spielberg is playing in the sandpits he loves best (sentimental drama, adventure, epic)? For a so-called "major Steven Spielberg fan" to not have any interest in that at all blows my mind. And it makes me want to argue, a reflex I'm getting pretty good at stifling.

      However, that's the internet for you: maddening in ways that are frequently almost beyond my ability to process.

      You'll hopefully find none of that around here. Very little of it, at least. So far, so good!

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  6. Bah. I responded to the wrong response.....sorry. I am trouble st this. I will wait to post again until I can access a computer....

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    1. I can't do ANYTHING on my phone when it comes to the internet.

      I've got Tetris, though, which is at least something!

      Post anywhere you want; I don't get all that many comments, so it's easy for me to keep up with them.

      By the way, if you're on Facebook, feel free to look me up and shoot me a friend request. I've got a page I use (almost) exclusively to communicate with King fans. You can find that here:

      http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002902696724

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  7. So, you are saying I should read Faithful, eh?

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  8. Actually, no -- that was the reason I threw in the comment about Spielberg's non-existent water-polo documentary!

    No, "Faithful" is a completely different case ... although, I will say, I have virtually zero interest in baseball. Possibly less: I have an active interest in avoiding it whenever possible. However, I enjoy King's writing style -- or his "voice," or whatever you want to call it -- enough that I still enjoyed his sections of "Faithful." I didn't even finish reading O'Nan's sections, because he failed to engage me at all.

    It's funny, I was just talking with someone at work about that book a couple of nights ago. We'd both read it. He's a big baseball fan and a relatively big King fan (he's the guy I lent my copy of TWTTK to), and he got a lot out of the book. I made the point that a good writer can -- and usually does -- engage the reader's interest no matter what he is writing about, because if he is interested in what he's writing about, then we'll be interested in his interest in it.

    If King ever writes a biography of Adam Sandler, my theory may truly be put to the test ... 'cause THAT guy ... I'm not a fan.

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  9. I am sure that when I come across it, I will read it. I am not a baseball fan, but as a King fan, I would not refuse to read anything he has written. I have to agree with you on the Adam Sandler thing, though.....
    the ” baseball books” are pretty low on my list....

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  10. That said, I completely understand a King fan not wanting to read "Faithful," because it is SO far removed from what he typically writes about that I can get it being of no interest to a fan of, say, "Cujo."

    It's different with "On Writing" and "Danse Macabre" (both of which I love), because I'd argue that those are as autobiographical as they are anything else, and they are both also useful as behind-the-scenes looks at what motivates/inspires King.

    Not so with "Faithful." There are elements of that, but they are way in the background.

    And even with "On Writing" and "Danse Macabre," I would totally get medium-to-casual fans not being interested in them.

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  11. No face book......nothing but this stupid phone...and the library.....email is much easier, though...for some reason it is impossible to edit anything I write here.

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    1. That's not you -- that's Blogger, which does not (so far as I can tell) support the editing of comments once they've been published.

      I can't even edit my own! And it's MY blog!

      Well, technically, it's THEIR blog, which they rent me for $0.00. For that reason, I don't complain much... all things considered, it's a phenomenally good service.

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  12. On writing was amazing, and would love to see it used in a creative writing class, along with a complete study of King's work!! Danse macabre was also great...

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    1. Oh, "On Writing" is used in creative writing classes pretty frequently, I think. It was used in one I took about a decade ago, and I've got at least one friend -- two, I think -- who had to read it in classes they took, too.

      I think it's become fairly popular, mainly because it's short, written by a very well-known writer, and -- most importantly -- REALLY good.

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  13. I mean I cannot edit while typing, much less after it is published!


    I would take that class!

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    1. Oh, I see. Ewwww!!! I couldn't write that way, it'd drive me nuts. Well, nutsER...

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  14. Great conversation here. Im salivating .to get to read TWTTKH. Ive been getting my king fix
    by rereading many older stories. I just visited the territories again in The Talisman and Black House. Then went to Bag of Bones, which i must say i enjoyed much more this go round. Now i have returned to Salems Lot. Im not sure what my point is here other than just being happy to find such great website and this particular thread. I hope to see you at the clearing at the end of the path :)

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    1. Hey, thanks, Shawn! Drop by any time, and feel free to look me up on Facebook (just search Honk Mahfah and you'll find me)!

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    2. I will definitely. Im going crazy waiting for this book to come out! Keep up the great blog. I could talk SK forever.

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    3. Me too! I had to start a blog just to give myself an outlet to do so...

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  15. How do you feel about the upcoming follow up to The Shining? I believe to be called Doctor Sleep. Sounds intriguing to say the least to see how Danny turns out forty years later. Is tony going to be a part of him i wonder.

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    1. My first impulse was to say to myself, "Man, that is REALLY tempting fate." It's not often you see a writer successfully create a sequel to one of his best-loved works nearly forty years after the original, so I was initially worried that King was in danger of tarnishing his legacy a bit.

      And who knows, he might do just that. But eventually it dawned on me that he would be just as aware of that as I am; way more so, in fact. So while I can theoretically imagine him writing a sequel to "The Shining" that is terrible, I find it hard to imagine that he would publish it. I think he'd only publish a sequel to "The Shining" if he had at least managed to please himself with it, and if he's pleased himself, then it seems likely that he'll please the rest of us as well.

      Only time will tell, of course. I'm bummed out the book isn't hitting shelves until 2013; I was hoping for a fall 2012 release!

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  16. I agree completely. I definitely don't think he would publish something that a) he d publish something that didnt give him some sense of satisfaction. and b) Black house was published after quite a break from travelin Jack's story and i loved that book. Obviously that was not forty years but based on that, i am cautiously optimistic.

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    1. Black House is probably a very good example of the type of "sequel" we can expect: it takes the central character, moves him years down the line, and is otherwise almost totally dissimilar to "The Talisman." I'd expect "Doctor Sleep" to be similarly dissimilar (now THERE'S a phrase...) to "The Shining."

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  17. I use my phone so i apologize for repeating words, grammatical errors and typos

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    1. Yeah, I've heard from other people that Blogger is a little difficult to use on a phone.

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